Active Empathy

We all know what active listening means, right? ..and of course, everyone knows what empathy is!

Well today I have coined this term: “Active Empathy”

Read on…


Empathy does not mean “seeing things from your point of view” …

When I started up in Sitel some years ago, the training guys told me that “empathy” was the key to call-centre client handling. They told me that you have “to see things from the point of view of other people”. But its not that easy!

Suppose I am looking at the world through my yellow glasses and you are looking at the world through your red glasses… If I come over to your point of view and look at the world, I will see it in orange! This is no good to anyone !

What we need first is to put our own point of view “on hold”. This “on hold” will allow me to get a better perspective of how you see things.


…but putting my opinion on hold is not enough to understand your point of view

Suppose then that I drop my own yellow opinions and come to have a look at things from where you are standing. What will I see? Who knows?!? …but I am still not wearing your red glasses, so it won’t be a world of red. What I need is to first look AT YOUR GLASSES and try to get a feeling for …. hear it comes … the key ….. your SITUATION, VALUES and NEEDS.

(If I get THAT, they I may actually later be able to look at the world THROUGH YOUR RED GLASSES. Or, as Harper Lee put it in “To Kill a Mocking Bird” ….”climb into their skin and walk around in it”)


Looking at other people’s Situation, Values and Needs requires real listening

In my training courses, I help participants discover the skill of real listening. To really listen, you need to do 3 things:

  1. Drop your ego and stop making assumptions
  2. Ask open questions
  3. Drill down to understand structural terms used by the other person

…we all know this, but its amazing how much we DON’T do it.


If you have actively listened and been truly empathic, its time for “active empathy”

It is not enough to understand other people. You need to SHOW you have understood them.

At Sitel, they told me that you should say things like “Ah-ha, I understand” and people will feel like you understand them. This point has been proven to be rubbish 100 times with my wife. No matter how much I say “I understand”, she still doesn’t believe me! (The fact it, I probably don’t understand her as I tend not to drop my ego much, but that’s another question…).

What is active empathy? Its SHOWING you have understood the situation, values and needs of another person. Showing WHAT you have understood….


Here are 8 key competences for active empathy

  1. Time, patience and a truly caring attitude
  2. Active listening (as described above) 
  3. Attention to detail (body language, reactions, phrasing, expressions etc)
  4. Don’t say you HAVE understood. Say WHAT you understood.
  5. Repeating and rephrasing structurally important words and ideas expressed by the other
  6. Usage of words and terms employed by the OTHER person when talking with them
  7. Matching the preferred communication style of the other person (with for example speech patterns, body language, level of detail)
  8. Collaboration: Work together for the greater good


In a nutshell, active empathy is:

  • Drop your ego –> Active listening –> Look at the glasses of the other person
  • Understand –> Show them you have understood


Thanks for reading!

Feel free to comment

Follow me on Twitter